The Man I Grew Up In Front Of

October 10, 2019

I don’t know his name. I might have, once. I can’t remember. We were friendly. As friendly as a 19 year old white guy and a 30 or maybe 40something year old black, homeless and usually drunk black guy could be. We’d pass each other in the street in Sea Point and acknowledge each other. There’d be some banter. Some joviality, even.

Maybe it was motivated by my white guilt and the kind of social awareness and desire for justice that a university student has, but I felt it narrowed the gap between us. Between our circumstances, which, it still seems to me, we were powerless over. 

I lived in a Sea Point flat for quite a few years, and then in another Sea Point flat for a few more. About nine or ten years all together, which is a long enough time to build a relationship, which is what it was, of sorts. But it has been about twenty years since I left Sea Point. And yet, walking past him now, I still recognise him. I don’t know if he still recognises me, especially because he is drunk. Still drunk.

At the beginning he wasn’t always drunk, but at the end – twenty years ago – he was almost always drunk and fucked up, with some bloody gash on his face or with swollen lips or walking on crutches. I assumed he got into fights; what other explanation was there? 

I wonder if, in his drunkenness and through his injuries, he still recognises me. 

“Give me some money!” he slurs, abruptly, carelessly, callously, desperately, wishfully, what-have-I-got-to-lose-edly. “Give me some money!” he says again on slurry, wobbly legs that are miraculously keeping him upright.

I gesture that vague gesture that, in my mind, is the beginning of a probably unnecessary explanation and that, in his mind, is simply a “no”, which as far as he is concerned is all that is necessary.

Still wondering if he recognises me, I recall that this was always the basis of our friendship. An exchange. A mutual courtesy, for me born out of guilt, for him born out of a humiliating necessity. We would smile at each other, money would pass from my hand to his, and I would feel better about my humanity, and he would be better off by a few rand, briefly.

The answer is yes. He still recognises me.

“You grew up in front of me!” he reprimands. He judges me, either in moral disgust or a last ditch attempt to induce guilt, to induce my hand into my pocket.

This is not as it should be. He has always been my senior in years but never in circumstance or privilege. We both have reason to be outraged, but instead we have both surrendered. It is what it is, and it is what it will always be, until, I expect, he finally dies of drunkenness or in a fight, or both. And when it happens, it’s unlikely to be in front of me.

I don’t have any money. That is the truth, but I doubt if he cares. 






Relax, the Trump Presidency is just a show

February 16, 2017

South African news has just been too depressing for too long, so I don’t read that much of it anymore. What I have been lapping up to a possibly unhealthy degree is American politics. You’d think that with everything that’s gone on since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the considerable amount of time I’ve spent following it, that I’d be shitting myself for the future of the world. But the fact that it is all happening over there, and not here, allows me to absorb it all with a kind of riveted detachment. It is engrossing, and full of drama and suspense. But I can switch off from it and get back to my normal life like it was nothing more than a temporary distraction, until the next instalment.

It’s a lot like a TV show, I realised. But it’s also an evolution of TV because it doesn’t just happen on TV. It happens on the internet, and on social media, and on pretty much all media. Which is a natural progression for entertainment in our times, isn’t it? Donald Trump is aware of this, and he works it hard on every medium he can. He is a showman, after all, and he knows how to draw a crowd. Even during his campaign, he apparently said it didn’t matter that Hillary was leading the polls because he was leading in the ratings.

Being a multi-medium show is only part of what makes it so successful, though. The other compelling thing about the Trump presidency is that it is also a multi-genre show. It’s clearly rooted in Reality TV (which is a genre Trump knows well from The Apprentice) in that we seem to be following “real people” doing “real things” and behaving as they “really” are, just in a somewhat unreal situation.

But the Trump Presidency Show has elements of a contradictory and, at the same time, complementary genre that we could call “Unreality TV”, because it is so full of fabrications and made up shit. You have characters using lies to defend lies, “alternative facts” to present the false as true, and fake news to accuse factual news of being fake news, all to such a far-fetched extent that you don’t know what’s actually real and what’s not.

Then there’s an additional genre that the Trump Presidency Show borrows from – that of fiction. But it is the sub-genre of fiction that pretends not to be fiction because it is “based on a true story” – a line that is usually so open to artistic license that it is basically meaningless and is only actually put there to make you think that truth is stranger than fiction, when it is pretty much 99% fiction anyway.

To be fair, the Trump Presidency Show doesn’t actually use the line “based on a true story”. But to anyone in South Africa it’s obvious that the show is based on something true and real. And that, obviously, is the South African presidency.

The Trump Presidency Show would never say that because South Africa is too far away and too insignificant to matter to an American or global audience, but the parallels are clear. Just think about the protagonists.

Donald Trump is playing the role of Jacob Zuma. They are both presidents, obviously. They both have a certain “try stop me, I don’t give a fuck” swagger about them. Both give the impression of being impossibly stupid and, at the same time, unnervingly sly, in a way that we can’t quite put our bewildered fingers on.

Kellyanne Conway is based on Baleka Mbete. One is a mouthpiece, the other is a speaker. Coincidence? I think not. And both characters have a common purpose and motivation, which is to unwaveringly defend and protect their president, and they seem to not mind being laughed at while they do it.

Then there is the man behind the president, the one who appears to be playing a supporting role, but who we suspect is actually pulling the puppet strings: Stephen Bannon, playing the you-know-whos (and if you don’t, they are the brothers whose last name starts with the seventh letter of the alphabet, and no, it’s not the Brothers Grimm).

And, of course, there’s an ensemble cast of cabinet picks who bear strong resemblances to many of our own ministers.

I imagine that you, too, have had a few conversations around which president is worse. In my experience Americans tend to say Trump and South Africans say Zuma, which is to be expected I suppose. At times I feel myself being seduced into such fun discussions, and my opinion is that while Trump is a greater threat to world peace, he doesn’t seem intent on screwing over his entire population the way Zuma has.

But then I remember that it’s a pointless and academic debate to have. The Trump Presidency isn’t even really real. So we may as well all just relax and enjoy the show.


A Putin Putdown - or is it?

January 19, 2017

So, like, the other day, there were these allegations about Donald Trump allegedly doing something alleged with allegedly Russian prostitutes, allegedly. The allegations could be fake, could be fact; that is not the concern of this post.

The concern is that Vladimir Putin felt it necessary to come to Donald's aid by saying that whoever put those allegations together is/are "worse than prostitutes".

Let's just take a moment to take in this putdown. To call them "girls of loose morals", as he did, is kind of so last century, isn't it? (Although why should I be surprised? Clearly Vlad prefers the strongman, authoritarian environment he grew up in to the more evolved one we now live in.) In the first place, they are not "girls", they are women. In the second place, how does he know anything about their personal morals? Are they murderesses? Fraudsters? Are they harming or hurting the people they consensually have sex with? How are their morals any looser than those of people who text while driving, or break the speed limit, and accidentally kill an innocent family? And besides, which occupation is not without some moral greyness? I wrote ads for a living for a while - some might say that is pretty immoral in some ways. What about lawyers defending the guilty? Not exactly morally unambiguous, right? Prostitutes are trying to make a living, like everyone else.

Okay, I acknowledge there are still many people in the world whose morals are very 19th century. Maybe even most people. But even making that hypothetical assumption, what is confusing is that uncle Vlad then actually seems to stick up for the people he has just insulted, because he goes on to say about these girls of loose morals that "ours are undoubtedly the best in the world".

It's an interesting choice of words, to say that this assessment is "undoubted". One can't help wondering, who exactly doesn't doubt it? And what proof do they, or he, have? 

But that is just a fascinating little digression from the main point here, which is the contradictory logic of Bad Vlad. Is he giving a back-handed compliment or a back-handed insult? Is he ashamed or proud of these women? Are they a reason to pity Russia or visit it? Would he like to be rid of them, or to have more of them? Because essentially what he is saying is this:

Prostitues are shit (and I don't think he means good shit). But no one has shit like us.


2 wheels, 1 saddle, not a lot of success

November 5, 2014

So I’ve been trying to teach my daughters to ride a bicycle.

Because (1) they are now 6 and 8, which is way old enough to ride a bike, (2) it’s kind of a life skill (maybe not as much as swimming, but close), (3) riding is cool, and it feels lovely, and is good for you, and for the planet, and mainly (4) I have these fantasies about us going out as a family on Sundays and riding on the promenade or in the country and having great times and making memories that we will remember for a long time.

I haven’t articulated this to my daughters, but I mean really, they see other, younger kids popping wheelies and shit and you’d think they’d go I wanna do that! But, not so much. At least, not with 2 wheels. But Stella’s training wheels broke a while ago, so it seemed opportune. I took them to the area next to the Cape Town Stadium where it’s flat and open. Lily rode on the bike that she got when she was 2 and which makes her look like Gulliver on a bike made in Lilliput, while I held onto Stella’s saddle and ran behind her at a weird angle that probably wasn’t very good for my back until I could see she was balancing fine, at which point let I let go and yelled YOU’RE DOING IT!, at which point she panicked and fell over and hurt herself and refused to get back on the horse bike ever again.

I can understand. For her it must be how I imagine it would be for those guys I see riding on the mountain when I’m up there running. Don’t ask me what possesses them to ride up that hill. But riding down is probably even more hectic. If it were me riding, I imagine a loose stone or a jutting out rock would cause me to lose balance and fall over and break a few bones or maybe die, and then still go tumbling over the side of the mountain and lie there for a few days before some snake finds me and alerts the police but not before taking a few bites out of my tasty legs. So I suppose that is a bit of what Stella is feeling.

When I brought the subject of riding up again some time later they both said not without a helmet, which is both reasonable and sensible, so I got them a helmet, but they were still reluctant. I tried to incentivise them with new bikes once they got the hang of it, but they weren’t biting.

Then I remembered this thing called google – have you heard of it? – and I googled how to teach kids to ride a bike, and what I found was that what you should NOT do is take them to a flat, hard area, because they are likely to fall and hurt themselves and not want to ride a bike ever again. Hello? Ring a bell? It said that what you SHOULD do is find a soft, grassy area with a gentle slope so they can learn to balance, then to brake, then to steer, then to pedal. Not all at once, like Stella did – perfectly – until she actually realised she was doing it.

Anyway, I suggested this method to my daughters and to my surprise and delight they were actually very keen. I got all amped and went onto gumtree to look for new bikes for the girls but my wife suggested I was maybe getting ahead of myself and putting the cart before the bike or something like that, and wasn’t it more financially prudent to wait until they were actually riding, which I reluctantly conceded.

So off we went to De Waal park. The girls each had turns on the 16 inch bike, and in between riding we snacked and looked at the trees and the dogs and the mountain and then we rode some more and snacked some more, and it was all peachy. In the car on the way home, they even said dad, can we do this every weekend? And in that moment my heart sparkled and I loved my girls so damn much and everything in the world was good.

So, skeeming I was onto a good thing, the next weekend we went again. Lily had one turn and lost interest and went off to snack. Stella had about 5 turns and lost interest when I suggested she pedal, which was clearly a step too far, even though she had mastered the steps of balancing, braking and steering. My heart didn’t sparkle on the way home that day.

I am not the sort of dad to push my daughters to be a doctor or musician or Nobel prize winner or anything else they don't want to be. Except maybe capable bicycle riders. But even that, I guess, is like any other parental push – more for me than for her. So I haven’t mentioned the bikes again. Maybe my reverse psychology will work. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe one day my daughters will wish they were better cyclists.

Meanwhile it seems my fantasy of family rides is just that. And I may need to get used to the idea of going solo on Sundays.


After The Story Before Bedtime

October 6, 2014

“Daddy?” Stella asks. “How did everyone in the world come from Adam and Eve? How could everyone be born from them?”
   She has just turned seven, and has been asking where babies come from a lot. I don’t know if this is what she is getting at, but if it is, I evade it, as I have been doing for a few weeks.
   “Well,” I say, “not all stories actually happened. Some are made up to teach us lessons. So some people believe that Adam and Eve were the first people on earth, and some people believe that it’s a story that was made up to teach us a lesson.” I worry that her next question will be to ask what the lesson of Adam and Eve, but it isn’t.
   “What do you believe?” she asks.
   “I believe it’s a story that was made up to teach us a lesson.”
   “Me too,” Stella says.
   “Me too,” Lily says. Lily has been a quiet observer to the conversation until now.
   I have told them a bedtime story, I have given them hugs and kisses – as much as I was permitted by Lily and as many as were dictated by Stella. Now, after this short conversation, there is a pause, and I try to leave the room.
   “I think Madiba was the first person in the world,” Lily says.
   “Why? Because he’s very old?” I ask.
   “Yes,” Lily says.
   “That’s why he’s in hospital,” Stella says.
   There is another pause in the conversation, so I begin to walk toward the door. But Stella is having none of it.
   “Daddy, how do chicken pox spread?” she asks. I consider what her train of thought might have been: hospital… sickness… chicken pox. Or perhaps somehow, in her mind, she has connected the spread of Adam and Eve’s offspring with the spread of chicken pox.
   “One person catches it from another person. Then someone catches it from that person.”
   “Yes, but how did chicken pox start?” I ponder how or where or who or when the Adam of chicken pox might have been.
   “I don’t know. There are sicknesses in the world and they change and become other sicknesses.” I doubt she is satisfied with this answer. I know I wouldn’t be.
   “Have I had chicken pox?”
   “Have you had chicken pox?”
   “Who did you get it from?”
   “One of my sisters. We all had it at the same time when we were children.”
   “But where did chicken pox come from?”
   “I don’t know,” I start. Sometimes you feel that if you don’t have answers to certain questions, you are going to really disappoint your children. You kick yourself for having such poor general knowledge and for being so uninformed. ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. If you are talking to adults. But children want actual, real answers. They are not satisfied with ‘I don’t know’. “I don’t know about chicken pox. But sometimes sicknesses go from animals to people. Like mosquitoes.”
   “Ja. Some mosquitoes can give you malaria if they bite you. Not the ones here in Cape Town, but in other parts of the world. So you have to sleep under nets or take medicine there. Otherwise you can get malaria. And malaria is serious. You can die from it.”
   “Can you die from chicken pox?”
   “Does Madiba have chicken pox?” Lily asks, venturing out once again from her position as quiet observer.
   “No, he has a chest infection. I think.”
   “Is that why he’s in a hotel?”
   “He’s not in a hotel,” Stella sighs. “He’s in a hospital.”
   “What’s the difference?” Lily asks.
   “You stay in a hotel when you’re on holiday. You stay in hospital when you’re sick,” I say.
   “Or when you have a baby,” Stella says.
   “Or when you have a baby,” I say.
   There’s a pause. This time it lingers and becomes a silence. This time I’m a little sorry it has.

Picture (c) Universal Studios


The 80s rocked, then they sucked, then they rocked

April 30, 2013

So I live two blocks away from this club called Decodance. Decodance only plays 80s music. I grew up in the 80s. And yet, despite how you'd think those three facts would combine to make me a regular, I had, until a few nights ago, never been to Decodance.

Shocking, I know. I mean what kind of 80s disciple am I? My excuse was always that I have young kids who wake me at 6am. But deep down, I know that is not the real reason. The real reason is I am a slacker. No, wait, that was the 90s. Anyway, a while ago, my wife and I agreed that we would go to Decodance at least once while we were still living in this house. Then we shook hands and high-fived to make the deal sacrosanct. And then we actually arranged to go with some friends.

I was quite amped, I must say. Mainly because I haven't been to a disco - I mean night club - in about a decade. And I haven't been to the 80s in about three. I didn't wear shoulder pads or anything, but like I said, I was pretty excited. Then, at the door, I even got one of those stamps that light up under fluorescent lights when you flash them to the bouncer to show him you've already paid your entrance fee and he has to let you in. Then, almost as soon as we were inside the club, two blonde girls with short skirts and generous cleavages offered me something called a Black Widow, which is toffee vodka I think, which I'm pretty sure didn't exist in the 80s, and which really didn't appeal to me. 

My friend had one, though, and watching him drink it was a little disappointing. There was no ritual. Firstly, where were the holsters those tequila girls used to keep their bottles in? Secondly, aren't the girls supposed to make you bend over backwards below their generous cleavages so they can pour the stuff down your throat while you look up at their generous cleavages? That didn't happen.

Then I realised that although a lot of 80s music is truly awesome and timeless to listen to, it really is quite difficult to dance to, especially if you want to avoid making a fool of yourself. Standing around with my hands in my pockets, looking awkwardly at the empty dance floor, I remembered how, the afternoon before one of my first disco parties, I practiced dancing to Kool and The Gang's "Get Down On It" in my bedroom. Then, at the actual disco party I asked one of the pretty girls to dance with me, and she agreed, which was awesome, but when I went public with the dance I'd practiced she said she wouldn't dance with me if I danced like that. Which wasn't awesome.

But then they started playing songs I haven't heard for twenty years. They played The Human League, and Blondie, and Nena, and Joan Jett, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Blancmange, and for large parts of the next two hours I basked in the glow of a time when I had zits, a breaking voice, a concave stomach, crushes, irreplaceable friendships, a Sony Walkman, and the coolest white Puma sneakers ever to grace the planet.

I recommend nostalgia to anyone. It's one of life's most underrated pleasures.


Of moobs and lobs

March 27, 2013

Last week I saw two shocking sights in exercising.

The first was my own man boobs while I was skipping.

I don’t mean the dainty, what-a-beautiful-field-of-daisies kind of skipping. I mean the working-muscles-you-never-knew-you-had-in-front-of-a-mirror kind. It was an ambivalent experience. I haven’t really skipped much before. I also haven’t really noticed my moobs much before.

They’re not terrible. I mean I don’t need a bro (boy bra) or anything. Not yet. But I don’t want to get to the point that I do. If you haven’t noticed, moobs have had a lot of bad press. They’re not exactly desirable. So I started a strict regime. I dropped a lot of foods I like and started doing a lot of exercises I don’t. (I didn’t skip again. Because I actually bought the skipping rope for my daughters. And because I thought I’d wait until I can see the positive results of my new regime.)

But then a few days later I saw a second something horrible in exercising: a lady gobbing while she was running.

Ladies gobbing – or lobbing, as I’ve begun to call it – is somewhat of a surprise when you see it. You just don’t expect it. And although I consider myself to be quite a liberal man, my first reaction was distaste. It’s not particularly lovely when men gob, but it’s even less so when women do.

But then I had a rethink, and realised what an opportunity this presented. If the world can get hung up about lobs the way it has about moobs, the pressure will be off us men. Both will be equally unacceptable. Or, better yet, equally acceptable.

So send me your lobbing pics. We’ll put them all over the internet. We’ll go big. It’ll go viral. And I’ll go skipping again. 


Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Star, How I Wonder Why You Aren't

December 10, 2012

I first knew of Hostess Twinkies decades before I actually tasted one. They were advertised in all the Archie comics I ever read.
   But I saw recently in Time magazine that the company that makes (or, rather, made) Twinkies is closed for business. Apparently Twinkies are only two steps away from being shoes, and they really shouldn't be thought of as "food". I don't know if it's true, but the writer reckoned that in this nutritionally enlightened age, that was Twinkies' downfall. They just couldn't sell enough of them.
   I mentioned this in conversation recently, and got a different version of events from a colleague. I don't know if it's true, but he reckoned the real reason the company went bust was that it had a really good pension scheme and couldn't afford to keep paying out. People are just living too damn long these days.
   If you ask me, the real problem was unsuccessful marketing. People drink Coke knowing even though it's terrible for them. If the Twinkies people wanted profits to go up and pension payouts to go down, they could have killed two birds with one some if they'd just sold more Twinkies.


July 25, 2012

Because everyone loves a good (shocking pink) vienna.
And a good grammatical error.


Lies that airlines tell you

June 1, 2012


2. We'd like to wish a warm welcome to all our passengers.

3. Especially our Club members.

4. Wearing your seatbelt throughout the flight is for your own safety.

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